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A man plays the clarinet on his balcony in Milan
Image: Imago-Images/Independent Photo Agency Int./C. Cozzoli

Living in the shadow of coronavirus in Italy

Megan Williams Rome
March 14, 2020

With all of Italy in quarantine to halt the spread of COVID-19, people are adjusting to a new way of life. Under lockdown, Megan Williams reports from her home in Rome.


Ten days after the Italian government closed schools nationwide, five days after it announced a full lockdown and two days after it signed a decree for an even wider shutdown, I stood on my home balcony in Rome belting out the national anthem.

In the building across from me — in fact, in the buildings all up and down my street — people sang along from their balconies and windows, clapping and hooting and banging on drums.

Read more: Coronavirus: Who is particularly at risk and why?

Under strict government directives to step out only to purchase food or medicine, for necessary work assignments or health emergencies, with stores, restaurants, cafes and even parks now closed, Romans joyfully embraced their first vertical flash mob in a boisterous expression of solidarity.

Living under quarantine signifies a profound change in habits for any country. But for cultures like Italy's, where physical affection is the norm and so much of life is still spent in the company of others — congregating in piazzas, sitting around the dinner table, clustering in outdoor bars and cafes with friends and strangers alike — keeping your distance is a Herculean task.

Before the latest decree that closed most parks I was walking home from the Italian Foreign Press Bureau, now shuttered, under the shade of glossy magnolia trees in the magnificent Villa Borghese park. I spotted two dear friends and waved to them. Instinctively, we rushed toward each other, only to suddenly halt and raise our hands in an unconscious gesture of self-defense.

We laughed, a bit embarrassed, and moved on to catching up, which for the past several weeks in Italy means talk about the coronavirus. But standing more than a meter away changed the tone of the conversation, stripped it of a kind of intimacy, and soon we said goodbye and went our separate ways.

Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, deserted
Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, usually full of tourists, has been deserted in recent daysImage: Cindi Emond

'Keep your distance!'

Those who work at the checkout and food counters in supermarkets have, for all intents and purposes, become front-line workers and their nerves are fraying.

The other day, the usually chatty woman at the fish counter snapped at a customer when he pointed, with gloved hands, too closely to the kind of calamari he wanted.

"Mantenga le distanze!" — Keep your distance!" she said. Her usual friendliness only returned when he asked advice on what to sauté calamari with — potatoes — to leave them tender.

At least, thanks no doubt in part to bidets, there have been no runs on toilet paper in Italy.

Read more: Coronavirus, cold, or flu symptoms: Should I see a doctor?

It's not just the physical adjustments and losses. Not just the endless hand-washing, the compulsive wiping down of phones, computers and door handles with alcohol or bleach. Not just the sudden veering away from the person on the street who sneezes or coughs.

It's the challenges in imagination: the not easy exercise of imagining a plausible, short-term, worst-case scenario and deciding what's best.

My mother-in-law, about to turn 88, phoned me, paralyzed by indecision. She lives alone in a central Italian city. She stocked up on food two weeks ago when she stopped going out, but secluded in her small apartment, she's going stir-crazy.

Should she, she asked, take the train to a town in northern Italy where her niece, a retired doctor, lives alone? On the one hand, it would put her at risk of infection just to get there. On the other hand, it would provide her with company and support if she were to get sick. If she waited, would trains even be running in a few days? And then stuck at home, how would this socially exuberant and now desperately lonely woman manage psychologically?

"I'm reading and watching the television," she said, "but I don't have all the technology that you young people have that let you see each other on those screens. I wish I'd learned."

Read more: Coronavirus: How Germany is showing solidarity amid the outbreak

A young Filipino mother of a 2-year-old boy I know here in Rome also called. After waiting for months for a visa to join her husband in Canada, she'd bought their one-way tickets to Toronto. But — bad luck — the flights were canceled the day before she was set to leave and she's now stuck, alone indoors with her young son, for the next weeks.

She's stocked up on food, but when I suggest she take a short walk with him in the stroller to avoid cabin fever, she says, "I'm too scared."

William, the 30-year-old Nigerian migrant who until last week stood outside my local bakery, available for odd jobs and begging for money, is also alone, though with just a few packages of rice and spaghetti. Until a week ago he shared a tiny apartment with a fellow Nigerian, before he left to stay with family.

"It's hard to explain," he said slowly, when I called to check in. "This is part of life. This is part of what can happen in life." Then he, a man who risked his life to cross the Mediterranean on a rickety boat, adds, "I am not happy for the older women who are dying. It is the older women that give me money. The older women who help me."

He's worried about the virus spreading to Africa. "The pastor tells us to pray for everyone. Black people and white people."

Shows of solidarity

As Italy — and now much of the world — absorbs this radical shift in how we live, the shows of solidarity continue.

Saturday at noon, Romans took to their windows and terraces once again to cheer in recognition and gratitude for the health care workers risking — and sacrificing — their lives to care for the thousands of sick and hospitalized.

And there are more balcony appointments planned for the coming evenings.

After the last one, someone on the roof of a nearby building — I couldn't see who — played his guitar and sang a few Italian folk songs. We, my neighbors whom I was seeing for the first time and I, stayed at our windows and on our terraces, listening.

There are people sick and dying and many more who will suffer great economic hardship because of this virus. But for that moment, it felt like sweet compensation.


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